The Obligation to Pray

  • Rav David Brofsky




            In previous shiurim we studied the laws of Keriyat Shema and its berakhot.  This week, we will begin our study of the laws of Tefilla, i.e. of the Shemoneh Esrei.  Throughout the upcoming shiurim, we will investigate the various of laws of Tefilla, the preparation for Tefilla, its proper time, the laws of insertions, what if one missed a Tefilla, etc.  This week, however, we will focus on the obligation to pray, and question its origin and nature.


"Avoda She-balev" – Service of the Heart:


The Gemara (Ta'anit 2b) teaches:


"And from where do we derive Tefilla? As it says in a Beraita, 'To love the Lord your God and to serve him with all your heart (Devarim 11:13)'- what is 'service of the heart'? This is prayer…"


This Gemara strongly implies that while the Torah may not have defined the structure and format of Tefilla, there is a biblical obligation to serve God with one's heart, i.e. to pray.


            The Rishonim differ as to the proper interpretation of this Gemara. 


            The Rambam, in his Sefer Ha-mitzvot (mitzvat asei 5) writes that there is a mitzvat asei to prayer.  Furthermore, he explains that when the Torah commands us to "serve Him" (Shemot 23:25, Devarim 6:3 and 13:5), it is referring to prayer. 


            The Rambam repeats this assertion in the beginning of Hilkhot Tefilla (1:1), where he writes:


"There is a positive commandment to pray daily, as is says, 'And you should serve the Lord your God,' and our tradition has taught us that this 'service' is prayer… and there is no number of tefillot from the Torah, nor is there a set text… or times from the Torah…"


However, a number of sugyot seem to contradict this position.  For example, the Gemara (Berakhot 21a) teaches that a ba'al keri, according to some, should refrain from Tefilla, as it is only mi-derabbanan.  Furthermore, the Gemara (ibid.) also rules that if one is on doubt whether one prayed, one need not repeat Shemoneh Esrei, as Tefilla is only mi-derabbanan.


            Furthermore, the Gemara (Sukka 38a) rules that if one has already begun eating and the time to recite Mincha arrives, one need not interrupt one's meal in order to pray, as Tefilla is only mi-derabbanan.


            Seemingly, these sugyot need not bother the Rambam, who admits that while the daily obligation to "pray" may be biblical, the specific prayers and their times are certainly rabbinic in origin.  However, the Ramban, in his comments to the Sefer Ha-mitzvot (mitzvat asei 5), disagrees.  Based upon these sources, and others, he rules that the obligation of prayer in only rabbinic. 


            As for the derasha cited above, "What is 'service of the heart'? This is prayer…" (Ta'anit 2b), the Ramban explains:


"(This derasha) may be an asmakhta, or, it may be instructing us that included in the service (of God) is that we should learn Torah, and pray to Him in times of crisis, and our eyes and hearts should be towards Him alone like the eyes of slaves to their masters, and this is similar to when the Torah writes, 'And when you go to war in your land against the adversary that oppresses you, then you shall sound an alarm with the trumpets; and you shall be remembered before the LORD your God, and you shall be saved from your enemies…' (Bamidbar 10:9)- and it is a mitzva to respond to every crisis which the community will face by crying out to Him in prayer…"


According to the Ramban, and incidentally also according to Rashi (Berakhot 20b d"h ve-chayyavin), the daily obligation to prayer in only mi-derabbanan.  However, the Ramban adds that there is a biblical obligation to pray in response to crisis.


            Interestingly, the Rambam agrees that there in a mitzva to respond to crisis with prayer, as he writes in his Hilkhot Ta'aniyot:


"There is a positive commandment to scream, and call out with the trumpets upon every crisis which confronts the community… and this of the ways of repentance, that during a crisis they should scream and cry out and they should know that their condition is a function of their bad behavior… and this is what will cause the removal of the crisis from them…"


Seemingly, this debate may reflect a broader disagreement as to the nature of prayer.  One might suggest that according to the Ramban, the requests and supplications are the essence of prayer, and therefore one is only OBLIGATED to pray when confronted with a real and severe need.  On the other hand, the Rambam may view prayer as one's daily encounter with one's Creator, and the requests and supplications express an aspect of one's relationship with God. 


            Interestingly, Rav Soloveitchik suggested that the Rambam and Ramban might actually agree as to the nature of prayer.  Both the Rambam and Ramban, the Rav insisted, believe that the obligation to pray is rooted in the religious response to crisis.  However, while the Ramban limits the obligation of prayer to the obvious and outward crisis which threatens the community, the Rambam includes the existential sense of crisis which confronts the religious person daily.  The Rambam views each and every day and its challenges as a type of crisis which one must respond to with prayer, no less than the communal crises he discusses in Hilkhot Ta'aniyot.


A Woman's Obligation to Pray:


            While it may seem that the above debate is merely academic, there may be far reaching ramifications regarding a woman's obligation to pray.


The gemara (Berakhot 20a) teaches:


"Women… are exempt from Keriyat Shema and tefillin, and obligated in Tefilla, mezuza and Birkat Ha-mazon… and they are obligated in Tefilla, because this [is supplication for Divine] mercy ("de-rachamei ninhu")- and while you might have thought that since it says in conjunction with Tefilla, 'Evening and morning and at noonday' (Tehillim 55), therefore it is like a positive precept for which there is a fixed time (mitzvat asei she-hazeman gerama), therefore we are told [that this is not so]…"


This Gemara clearly states that women ARE obligated in Tefilla.  However, one might question, is the Gemara referring to all of the tefillot?


            According the Ramban's understanding of the obligation of Tefilla, i.e. that the only obligation to pray is the rabbinic obligation to recite the Shemoneh Esrei, then the Gemara MUST be referring to the Shemoneh Esrei! If so, then we must conclude that women are obligated to recite the Shemoneh Esrei.


            Some (see Arukh Ha-shulchan 106:7 and Peri Megadim 89:1, as well as Rabbenu Yona's Iggeret Ha-teshuva 3:79) assume that just as men pray three times daily, so, according the this Gemara, must women. 


            Others (see Shulchan Arukh Ha-Rav 106 and Mishna Berura 106:4) assume that as Shacharit and Mincha are obligatory prayers, women are certainly also obligated to recite them.  Aravit, however, is fundamentally a tefillat reshut (optional), which over time men accepted upon themselves as an obligation.  That so, women did NOT accept upon themselves to recite Tefillat Aravit, and are therefore only obligated to recite Shacharit and Mincha.


            Interestingly, the Rif, and apparently the Rambam as well, had a different text of the above Gemara.  The Rif (Berakhot 11b) writes that women are obligated in Tefilla as "it is NOT a time bound mitzva."  The Rambam (Hilkhot Tefilla 1:1) also rules that women are obligated in Tefilla, as it is NOT a time bound mitzva. 


            If so, it is not clear whether the Gemara, and subsequently the Rif and Rambam, obligate women to recite the Shemoneh Esrei at least twice a day, which is mi-derabbanan, or merely to fulfill the biblical obligation of prayer by saying a short supplication each day. 


            The Peri Megadim (introduction to Hilkhot Tefilla), the Tzelach (Berakhot 26a) as well as the Kapot Temarim (Sukka 38b) explain that once women are obligate to pray once a day mi-de’oraita, the rabbis did not distinguish between the biblical obligation and the rabbinic duty to recite Shemoneh Esrei at least twice per day. 


            Others (see Magen Avraham 106:2) suggest that while any supplication may fulfill the biblical obligation to pray, women are exempt from the rabbinic obligation of the Shemoneh Esrei.  The Magen Avraham therefore suggests that this Rambam serves as the basis for the custom of most women NOT to recite the Shemoneh Esrei, but rather to say a short supplication after washing their hands in the morning.  He suggests that "perhaps" the Rambam does not require women to recite the Shemoneh Esrei. 


            It is worth noting that the Rambam himself, in his Peirush Ha-Mishnayot (Kiddushin 1:7), lists Tefilla as an example of a time bound mitzva which women ARE obligated to fulfill, similar to Megilla, ner Chanukka and ner Shabbat. 


            Practically speaking, it would seem that the majority of authorities require women to recite the Shemoneh Esrei at least twice daily.  However, some Acharonim are more lenient for those women who are busy taking care of their children.  The Chafetz Chayyim, for example, as reported by his son Rav Aryeh Leib (see Sichot He-Chafetz Chayyim 1:27), reportedly instructed his wife not to recite the Shemoneh Esrei during the years in which she was caring for small children.  Furthermore, the Chazon Ish also apparently felt that in addition to relying upon the Magen Avraham cited above, women may be exempt from Tefilla while caring for their children because they are unable to achieve the proper level of kavvana (see Shu"t Machazeh Eliyahu 19:14).  Some even suggest that a mother caring for her young children may be equated with a person tending to a sick person, who is exempt from Tefilla.  Similarly, some suggest that caring for children may be considered "osek be-mitzva," during which one is exempt from fulfilling another mitzva!


            In any case, when possible, women should strive to recite at least Shacharit and Mincha.


Next week, we will continue our studies of Tefilla.